In the coming months, the US will begin direct engagement with leaders of two northern Somalia breakaway regions with the hope that those political ties can stem the radical insurgency that threatens to spread beyond the lawless parts of southern Somalia, according to US State Department officials.
The effort marks a significant policy change toward Somalia, which has become a safe haven for the Islamic insurgent group Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda-linked faction that has been battling the weak, US-backed central government.
In the last two years, the US has spent more than $200 million trying to bolster Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. And while that support will continue, the US also will engage with leaders in Somaliland and Puntland as it looks to build on those regions’ relative political and civil stability.
The two analysts the article quotes – Richard Downie of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Ken Menkhaus of Davidson college – both indicate that the new strategy could be effective, though Menkhaus warns that its implementation could prove tricky.
What of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)? Downie bluntly states that the new strategy “reflects the fact that the TFG is probably a doomed project.” If that view is shared amongst government policymakers, the TFG’s doom could definitely be on its way. US strategy and the TFG’s survival are closely linked: American dollars have most likely already extended the TFG’s lifespan past what it would have been without aid. A more diversified American strategy in Somalia, then, could not only reflect US fears that the TFG is failing, but also hasten the fulfillment of those fears.
Even with the new strategy, the situation puts the US in something of a bind. Extending greater support to these would-be nations does not equal granting them official recognition, but it is a big step in that direction. If African countries who oppose the “balkanization” of Somalia become uneasy with US policy, that could create diplomatic problems for the US in the region. And withdrawing support from the TFG could give al Shabab more room to expand, potentially achieving exactly the opposite of the hoped-for effect. The old strategy was clearly failing in its goal of building a strong central government in Somalia, but the new strategy brings its own complications. These complications are not insurmountable, but they are serious.